J & FJ Baker is Britain's only remaining traditional oak bark tannery. There has been a tannery on this site since Roman times, and traditional methods from the Mediaeval period are still in use. The tannery was the first stage in the leather-making process, the final curing and drying being completed at the now unused currier further along the lane. All stages are now completed on these premises.
More about the process further on.
I came across the site after finding the currier, and although I'd heard of the tannery many years ago, I had no idea how old the buildings are or anything about the traditional process. The site is beautifully higgledy-piggledy with gantry walkways between the various buildings, several of which have winch housings on the top storeys. Even though it's been rebuilt over the centuries, it still has a wonderful Mediaeval feel to it.
I wandered around taking photos of as much as I could. I would have asked permission to go in further but everytime I spotted someone they were out of one door and into another with a wave and a cheery hello. Perhaps they're used to people just wandering in and having a mooch!
Anyone remember the music from Windy Miller? Well, imagine the lovely creaking windmill with the sound of a running stream instead of the music, and that's what I heard as I headed into the site. And this is the reason why...still traditionally powered by a waterwheel. Sadly, my photo of the wheel itself didn't come out but the photo above shows the mill race seen from a window by the wheel housing.
The raw hides are soaked in lime. This loosens the hair and opens the pores, and while still wet the remaining hair is scraped off. The hides are then hung in weak tanning solution in 'handler pits', where they are agitated by a mechanism of reciprocating wooden arms driven from beams and shafts in the roof, powered by the waterwheel. The waterwheel also drives a grinder, which is used to strip the bark from oak branches. The bark is an essential ingredient of the tanning process.
After several months, the hides are moved to deep 'layer pits' to soak in strong oak bark liquor for nine months.
After drying, the hides are shaved before currying. Hand tools are used for setting and staining, and the hides are dressed with the traditional fish oils and mutton tallow. The finishing process includes the use of a 'bend roller', which is an iron reversing mechanism with a pulley belt. This drives a curved polished roller back and forth across the hide under pressure to produce soling leather.
The ventilation shutters on the top storeys are used to control the airflow during the drying process. These same kind of vents can be seen on the currier building too.
There's a wonderful atmosphere here, lovely old buildings and lots of interesting things to see. Definitely one of my top favourite places visited. :)
Many more photos from this visit and a later one can be seen in the Photo Gallery album, along with these.